A Few Thoughts on Paris, Social Media, and Selective Grief

As a sociology student who is particularly interested in the roles and effects of news media and social media on society, I've found the debates and discussions following the attacks in Paris to be significant, provocative, and- at times- unnecessary. The arguments that I explore here are based purely from personal experience and my own opinion. I'd hesitate to claim that any of these thoughts are fully formed or that my opinions are unlikely to change. This is but a mere reflection on a singular event that feeds into a much wider discussion on how we react to tragedies. I hope that if you're reading this, you will share your own thoughts with me- whether you agree or disagree with what I've written here.    

I find it fascinating that at the click of a button we can feel as though we've contributed something meaningful in the midst of a horrific tragedy. On the one hand, these small gestures help us to feel connected to something greater as we digitally link arms with one another, standing in solidarity and respect as a united world.

But perhaps it makes us feel a little bit better about ourselves, and pardons us from saying or doing anything more than adding a filter to a "temporary" picture. The fact that Facebook so describes these images as "temporary" is a painful reminder that those of us who weren't directly affected by this event will be able to easily move on from it.

But for the victims, families, and people of Paris, these wounds are anything but temporary. I know this as a Bostonian and as a runner. As much as my city celebrates “Boston Strong” on the weekend of the Boston Marathon, fear and grief resurface on the anniversary of our own bout of terror.

I chose not to change my profile picture not as a political or social statement, but because I can't bear the thought of switching it back to "normal" once a few weeks have passed and my moral obligation has been fulfilled. And while I understand that not everyone feels similarly about the tricolor, I feel that the inevitable physical representation that I've "moved on" would be difficult to personally come to terms with.

What I've found most upsetting about the social media outpouring of support is not the support itself, but the hypocrisy of those who claim to stand with Paris, yet spew hateful language on media outlets. While I can't say that I've known anyone personally who has acted as such, it isn't uncommon to see someone in the comments section sporting a tricolor profile picture yet bashing Muslims and refugees.

With any act of terrorism unfortunately comes backlash and blame. It saddens me to know that at a time when so many innocent lives are lost, so many more innocent people become the targets of hate. From continued instances of racial profiling to recent announcements by multiple state Governors refusing to accept refugees, terrorism affects more than only the victims of the crime.  

As a result of the massacre in Paris, there has also been a significant amount of debate surrounding selective grief- namely, why we profoundly show support for Paris, yet we don't acknowledge the arguably more common acts of terror in other countries.

There is  no doubt that the media is highly biased towards Western societies. The concern with Paris is perhaps- quite sadly- a reflection of our mindset that these types of mass killings aren't supposed to happen in places like this. France, the United States, and the United Kingdom among other countries are viewed to be places where people take refuge from the woes of the world. Unfortunately, we see attacks on people's freedom in places like Syria, Beirut, and Gaza to be normal. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't say anything about it.

However, posts on social media that address this issue often do so in ways which I find quite troubling. While it is shocking that April’s massacre in Kenya that left nearly 150 University students dead didn't receive the same media coverage as the Paris attacks, arguing that we should focus on Kenya rather than Paris is reductive of the events occurring this past week. A genuine concern for non-Western societies should be prevalent at the appropriate time- and not at the detriment of the victims of Paris.

But consideration of places like Kenya and Beirut do bring up an important question, one that TIME poses in a recent article: Do some terror attacks mean more than others? Unfortunately, I'd have to say the answer is yes, because "meaning" is not objective- it is both constructed and assigned by dominant forces. The media, of course, plays a large role in this process- one driven by money, politics, and popularity. And so it is incredibly difficult for us as consumers of media to control what we see, hear, and read. 

I don't know if there is a solution to this predicament. But what I do know is that the events that occurred over the past few days, whether in Paris or Beirut, are unimaginably inhuman. And no matter where you stand regarding unrest in the Middle East, or what your religion is, know that hate is what has brought about these attacks on innocent people. And the spread of further hatred is not going to get us anywhere.       

Nothing can fully heal the agony of the more than one hundred lives lost. Not a profile picture, not a blog post, and perhaps not even time. But the best we can do to ease the pain of events like these- whether through writing, reflection, or support- is better than not doing anything at all.


  1. A brave, honestly written article - proud of you.

    I agree with you that Western media has a disproportionate amount of power when it comes to deciding which tragedies are newsworthy and which are "commonplace". As residents of Western countries, it shocks us to see violence and tragedy in other Western countries whose political, social, and economic profiles mirror our own. "It could have happened here", we say when a people who we identify with is attacked.

    But it is worth remembering that people in Syria, Lebanon, Kenya and other developing nations are not all that different from ourselves. It's worth remembering that these are the same nations and the same people that boast world-class universities and ancient cultures, but that our exposure is censored to images of blood and weapons. Violence is universal (we, as Americans, have our own share of skeletons), but the fact that it feels otherwise is indicative of how far we have to go in breaking down the power structure that still separates the white, Western world and everybody else.

    Mourning one tragedy does not have to come at the expense of another, and as we remember those in Paris and Beirut, we should reflect upon the fact that humanity transcends all constructions of race, power and wealth.

    One of my favorite poems (from a HONY entry!) sums up what I’m trying to say:

    "The lines around the self, the borders between you and me aren’t as obvious as they may seem
    We are all connected."

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment, Alekhya! (As ever) You make an incredibly valuable point that we often fail to recognize that which we share with non-western communities. It seems to always be a juxtaposition of "us" versus "them," and it's safe to say that isn't entirely helpful when it comes to understanding and resolving universal political and social issues (to put it simply). You are right in that we must offer our condolences in the wake of certain tragedies without being reductive of others

      That poem is beautiful- and I hope you've been making use of that HONY book I gave you a while ago ;)

  2. Thought of this blogpost, when I saw this New Yorker article. They are either reading your blog or are just a little slower to come to similar conclusions:



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